Mar 25, 2020 in Analysis

The Analysis of Matisse’s The Moroccans and Picasso’s Three Musicians

Modern art has developed a variety of methods and techniques used by the painters to create interesting, expressive and thought-provoking narratives. It is especially evident in those works of art that include elements of portraiture. This essay will be devoted to the analysis of Henri Matisse’s The Moroccans (1916) and Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians that both depict people surrounded by the environment.  These works have a large number of similarities as they both use some elements of Cubism syntax, but at the same time the messages that the artists try to communicate to the audience are rather different.

The two analyzed images are presented in a different manner in terms of their composition. The Moroccans are divided into three distinct parts – the balcony, vegetables on the ground and the part with the pink building and the man. These parts are not visually intersected as they are separated by the dense black color of the background, but they form a very balanced composition. In contrast, Picasso’s painting has a solid central group of three persons who are surrounded by almost homogeneous background.


However, despite significant differences in composition other aspects of these paintings are quite similar. One of the most important similarities between these two paintings is the way the painters used colors. Both artists chose to place quite bright and light figures and objects on the dark background. Although this contrast is much more visible in Matisse’s work as the colors of the figures in Three Musicians are darker, the general approach is almost identical. Both Matisse and Picasso use bright accents to guide the gaze of the viewer. For example, in The Moroccans it is the red pot with flowers, the melons, whereas in Picasso’s painting such color accents are the clothes of Harlequin and his guitar. Matisse and Picasso paid much attention to lines in their paintings and made them work for Cubism principles. The lines are supposed to emphasize the two-dimensionality of the canvas. It was a very important idea for both artists as they rejected classical perspective and traditional focus on three-dimensional volume that was characteristic of previous artistic movements. For example, at The Moroccans the lines of the mosque that is supposed to be located in the distance do not differ from the lines that are used to denote the rails of the balcony. At Three Musicians it is especially evident in the area where Pierrot is holding the clarinet. All figures and objects at both paintings are flat. However, Matisse is slightly more concerned with the imitation of volume than Picasso who totally rejects it. The dome of the mosque is painted by Matisse in two shades of gray that highlights its semispherical shape. The blue burnoose, a special Moroccan coat, of the man also has some shades denoting the fold of the fabric. Nevertheless, it is not possible to talk of three-dimensionality at The Moroccans as everything at the painting are aimed at making the canvas look flat without ruining the composition and balance. The similar situation can be seen in Three Musicians where the figures of three men and a dog hidden behind them look as if they were shapes cut out of a piece of colored carton. The brushwork and materials used are also quite similar. Both artists do not attempt to hide the creative process, so the brushstrokes are applied in an open manner with the layers of background color shining through the subsequent ones. Matisse and Picasso used typical for modern art oil in canvas and identical pigments for dark colors.

All these technical and stylistic choices made by Matisse and Picasso help to make these works more expressive. The Moroccans is a very persuasive narrative about the everyday life in “exotic” places as they were seen by Matisse’s fellow countrymen. The way Matisse used colors and shapes allowed him to render the atmosphere of a sunlit street in one of Moroccan towns. The message of Three Musicians is slightly more complicated as it relies more on symbols and metaphors than direct and obvious narrative. Although Picasso portrays three characters that can be easily identified as they are popular in classical Italian commedia dell'arte, the very message of the painting can be interpreted in many different ways. It may be understood as a tribute to the bohemian life Picasso used to have in Paris, or it may be his way to remember his friends Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob (the central figure of Harlequin is usually identified as Picasso). The figural distortions were of particular concern to Picasso at this painting as it was a prerequisite of showing the contradictions of bohemian life – its power to elevate the person and at the same time make a corrosive impact on him.

Both The Moroccans and Three Musicians perfectly correspond to the main tendencies in avant-garde art of 1910s and 1920s. Matisse’s painting has distinct primitivism elements that were widely used by Gauguin, the Fauves and others. This movement supported the artists’ interest in the so-called “primitive” cultures like Africa or East Asia where, according to the ideology of primitivism, people managed to maintain original and pure understanding of the outside world. They reflected their feelings, unspoiled by civilization, in their art that was greatly appreciated by many European artists of the early twentieth century. Matisse made several trips to Morocco where he experienced this “primitive” culture and used a variety of ethnic motifs in his art. Picasso was also fond of “primitive” art as he was an avid collector of African masks. However, it must be also mentioned that these primitivism ideology that popularized the theory of going “back to the basics” was, to a certain extent, colored by colonialism viewpoint of the society. Matisse in The Moroccans does not attempt to focus on the psychological aspects of the persons he portrays, but rather depict the whole story as an expressive illustration of some exotic and faraway place. At the stage of constructing the primary composition of this painting Matisse called it a "souvenir of Morocco” highlighting that it is something interesting and decorative that is brought from abroad.

At The Moroccans primitivism coexists with strong cubism tendencies that were established in the European art by Picasso. One of the main stylistic techniques applied by the representatives of this movement was fracturing objects into various geometric shapes and later assembling the original figures using them as building blocks. This technique is not very obvious in Matisse’s painting as he had never been an outspoken cubist, but it obviously influenced his methods. The still-life with melons and their large leaves located at the left bottom part of the painting looks exactly like a collage of geometrical shapes, not as an organic and natural form of vegetables.

Whereas The Moroccans only refer to cubism in certain aspects, Three Musicians completely correspond to the main principles of this artistic movement. Picasso depicted the men at the painting as an assemblage of squares and rectangles. The gray face of the monk is a titled square that creates a striking contrast to the dark background. Pierrot looks even more disjointed than the monk with a number of white geometric shapes standing for his arms, legs and torso. The dog is probably the most organic element in the painting, but, according to Picasso’s scheme it is hidden behind the musicians, as traditional art was being pushed into the past by new avant-garde movements. Some art historians believe that this painting can be also a symbolic reply to The Piano Lesson, the large composition related to music that Henri Matisse painted in 1916. Picasso often created paintings as replies to the works of artists he was interested in or, on the contrary, totally rejected. In addition, it must be mentioned that Three Musicians was an important landmark in Picasso’s oeuvre that represented his transition to the so-called Synthetic Cubism that is characterized by simpler shapes and much brighter colors than in previous periods. However, as well as most of Matisse’s work this painting by Picasso was accepted only by the connoisseurs of avant-garde art and its avid collectors. The general public rejected both works and they became really popular and appreciated only in about a decade when avant-garde became widely popularized.

To conclude, Matisse’s The Moroccans and Picasso’s Three Musicians have many significant differences. The artists had different approach to dealing with composition and Picasso’s work lacks the distinctive “exotic” atmosphere present at Matisse’s painting. Matisse and Picasso also communicated different messages to the audience with Matisse focusing on the ethnic elements and Picasso drawing attention to the symbolic nature of bohemian life. However, the analysis showed that these works of art have a range of very important similarities that allow to argue that these painting were in perfect harmony with the major tendencies of avant-garde art. There are some cubism elements in both paintings and they are quite similar in terms of colors, space and other aspects.


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